Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Inspirational v. Christian: Really?

By Rel Mollet

Following on from my last post regarding "crossover fiction", today I'm responding to the second part of Iola's question:

What do I think of the trend for fiction from the big publishing houses (e.g. Thomas Nelson) to be more "inspirational" than "Christian".

A quick look at Dictionary.com reveals the following definitions:

Inspirational: With reference to theology:
a. a divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul.
b. the divine quality of the writings or words of a person so influenced.

Christian: of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings.

To me, both definitions sound pretty good (when interpreting the "divine" as God), so it means I love both kinds of stories!

That said, I'm thinking Iola is comparing the two in the sense of "inspirational" meaning a positive, clean story as opposed to a "Christian" story having a more evangelical bent, or one with overt theological content.

Some random thoughts on this issue:
  • I read for pleasure, relaxation, entertainment, mental stimulation, challenge, and encouragement
  • When I pick up a novel, I'm not looking for exegesis, a Bible study, or a lesson in theology. 
  • My experience has been that conversion scenes are rarely done well in novels, and often interrupt the natural flow of the story and seem placed there because of some misplaced belief that if it is a Christian novel, it must have one. This has become less of an issue in the last decade.
  • A gentle caress communicates more to me than wielding a hammer
  • We need to step away from the prevalent belief, in some circles, that if a story doesn't have a requisite Bible verse, conversion scene, or multiple references to characters attending church and doing the "right thing", then the story is not "Christian" enough.
As most of us know, the book of Esther makes no mention of God and yet the spiritual truths of love, sacrifice, service, courage, and faith couldn't be more clearly made as the young Jewess saves her people. For me, this is the best kind of story - one that leaves me to wrestle with the underlying message, words that make me ponder the deeper meaning of the story.

Denise Hunter's contemporary romance, Surrender Bay, is one such story. God is not mentioned, there is no overt "come to Jesus" moment, and yet that story spoke to me on so many levels. Here's an excerpt from my review, a few years ago, "God’s love, faithfulness, and the heartache He endures to draw us back in to relationship with Him is powerfully told in this story by way of allegory. Without any overt reference to God, Denise has turned the spotlight on the depth of God’s love for His children in a story that will remain with you long after the last page is read."

I'm also of the view that we need a range of fiction that appeals, not only to a broad range of believers, but stories that non-believers will enjoy, too. Robert Liparulo writes terrific thrillers, with all the action, and yes, violence, that appeals to many men. Yet they are clean, without the language, gratuitous violence and sex, that hallmark many contemporary thrillers available to men these days. I love that I can enjoy them (nothing like a well written thriller, in my book!), but that I can comfortably recommend them to men seeking novels that meet their need for action and suspense.

My dear friend, Tamara Leigh, who has written a number of contemporary Christian romances for Waterbrook Multnomah, has recently successfully published some excellent Christian medieval romances (traditional Christian publishing houses are most reluctant to publish books in that era due to the prevalence of Catholicism), as well as rewriting her general market medieval romances as "clean" novels. She has discovered there is great interest in "clean" novels as there is a significant number of readers who are wary of being thumped over the head with Christian content in a story marked for a Christian audience, but are also trying to avoid the overly sexualised content in romance novels.

Christian writers are forced to walk a very fine line, by their readers and their publishing houses. Sadly, many of the people criticising the content of their stories are fellow believers. I'm all too often reading reviews that complain of too much of this and not enough of that. In some instances it is justified, in most cases it simply saddens me.

Every writer, like every person, is answerable to God for what they do. From what I can understand by talking to so many writers over the years, is that the ability to write well is a gift, a talent given to them by the Lord, that hopefully one they have the opportunity to use to bless so many. Who are we to say (or a publishing house for that matter) what story someone should write? We will never know which words might touch someone's life - they may be the obvious ones, but more often than not, they are the little ones, the unassuming subtle turn of phrase, a character wrestling with a choice in life, an authentic, heartfelt emotion, that may make all the difference in a reader's life journey.

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Rel Mollet founded her book-reviewing blog www.RelzReviewz.com in 2006, which is dedicated to showcasing Christian Fiction and its writers by way of reviews, author interviews, character spotlights, and more. 

Rel is a contributing writer for NovelCrossing.com and FamilyFiction.com, and an Advisory Board member of the INSPY Awards.  A book club co-ordinator for over a decade, Rel resides in Melbourne with her family.




21 comments:

  1. Mike Duran is covering this topic as well, from a slightly different perspective (see http://mikeduran.com/2014/06/how-important-is-a-christian-worldview-to-christian-fiction/).

    It's interesting to compare the two. You've given examples of edgy books that are written from a Christian world view but would never (?) be published in the CBA because they are too violent/edgy. Mike has postulated there is a continuum of Christian worldviews, and only books which align with the top of the spectrum (1-3) are published in the CBA. I don't entirely agree, but he and his commenters make some good points.

    An interesting subject, and one for which there is no easy answer.

    What I do expect to see is more authors choosing to self-publish because they are not writing within the narrow confines of traditional CBA publishing (e.g. Tamara Leigh, Heather Day Gilbert), or publishing in the general market (e.g. Iris Anthony, aka Siri Mitchell).

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    1. Thanks, Iola. Mike always has fascinating debates on his blog, no doubt this is one of them. I just wasn't sure what you meant by my edgy examples that wouldn't be published in the CBA. Bob's books are published by Thomas Nelson. Tamara's aren't violent as such, although there's always a bit of swordplay!!

      The CBA will rarely publish medieval stories, simply because the faith matters naturally arise within the confines of the Catholic church, due to the era.

      Have I missed something?!

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    2. I was meaning 'edgy' from the Christian viewpoint. Dreamspell has a time-travel element that I think the CBA would consider edgy. And I've never read Robert Liparulo, so didn't realise he was published by Thomas Nelson.

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    3. Ah, I see :) That is true of Dreamspell, yet her Age of Faith series are straight historical romances. Interestingly, Howard Books has recently published Lynne Gentry's time travel romance that puts a 21st century doctor back into the years shortly following Jesus' death. It's a great read!

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  2. Rel, excellent post! I agree with your perspective on this topic. Reviews are a reflection of personal taste. Some readers like more overt Christian content, while others prefer a more subtle faith element. It's not a right or wrong issue.

    I downloaded a Christian romance movie yesterday, and I felt like I was being preached at by the characters. The dialogue was very heavy with Christianese, and I think the faith message was highlighted to the detriment of the natural flow of the story. There was a conversion scene that kind of worked, but it would have been more powerful if I'd felt more invested in the characters and their journey.

    My understanding is the term inspirational was first used back in the 1980's when Romance Writers of America had an inspirational category in their contests. Inspirational according to the RWA definiton included stories with a religious belief system, but it was primarily associated with Christian romance because that was the main type of religious romance being published at the time. In the mid 1990's Harlequin established the Steeple Hill Love Inspired line, and defined their inspirational romances as books with a Christian faith element.

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    1. Thanks Narelle :) It really comes down to good character development and excellent writing, no matter the topic!

      That's interesting background on the term inspirational.

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  3. Thanks, Rel, for your honest and informed post. When I speak at a 'secular' venue, which I do quite often, I usually describe my novels as 'inspirational', then go on to explain that they have a strong faith theme in each of them eg holding onto our faith in the hard times, forgiveness, overcoming rejection etc and that they mention God quite a few times! Those present know from my talk on writing that I'm from a ministry background, so they usually nod and understand that that's how I write because that's who I am. I just keep my explanation simple and use terminology everyone would understand. I don't sell many novels at such events, but I do sell some--and I love that! To my surprise though, some people go for my non-fiction book 'Soul Friend', which is clearly a Christian memoir--so who knows? I think there is such a spectrum of readers and reader preferences out there that it's best just to write the sort of novels we want to write and see where God takes them. As you say, every writer is answerable to God for what they write.

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    1. I think in many circumstances we tend to be more antsy about these terms, or the impact of them, than "secular' folk, don't you? Totally agree on the spectrum of readers, and therefore, the spectrum of books, Jo-Anne!

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  4. Great post, Rel.

    As a reader I enjoy both styles. Most times I find the Christian content light, and I think this is ok for what I'm reading. It takes a really good writer to weave a strong spiritual thread through the character arc without it coming off as preachy. I've just finished Ronie Kending's Raptor 6 and found the characters' faith journeys written with grit. Meaty and completely satisfying. No winching at the simple Christianese there! (Mind you, the romance was equally satisfying, well done, Ronie.) :)

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    1. Ronie is an author who I think juggles the balance extremely well, Dotti. I'm with you on enjoying both styles, as long as they are written well.

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  5. Aren't we blessed that our writing can be done within such a wide spectrum? It's who we are that makes us write the way we do, and there is sure to be readers who 'get' what we write. I think being honest in writing our passion is far better than trying to fit into a publisher's narrow guidelines. Of course that can cause problems, re getting published, but like you say, Rel, Indie publishing is a great option for those who might fall between the cracks!

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  6. Hi Rel, Thanks for your post with lots of great points. This seems to be an ongoing debate though I agree with you that there is room for many different approaches here - both fiction in which faith (including prayer, miracles and conversion) are a natural part of life and fiction in which is still faith filled but more understated, reflecting Christian values and world view. I had a stab at the question myself last November http://christianwritersdownunder.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/what-is-christian-fiction.html .

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    1. Hi Jeanette - thanks for your thoughts. It's a never ending topic, I imagine!!

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  7. This is always an interesting topic and Rel you present it well. I've always thought of the use of "inspirational" as almost a softer form of "Christian", ie, we don't want to limit our audience so we'll call it "inspirational."

    I'm like Dotti and will happily read stories that don't have too much of a Christian-bent but do love an author who challenges and also teaches me something new about our walks. That's one of the reasons I particularly like Jim Rubart's work. It's one of the wonderful aspects of Christian fiction, an author can draw out an element of the kingdom and bring it alive in a story, not unlike how Jesus used parables.

    The beautiful thing is there is a market for everyone and every taste. Finding that market, however, can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

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    1. Yep, I agree, Ian :) Jim's books are always incredibly challenging but he wields his words and wisdom with much subtlety and grace - love that!

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  8. Hi Rel,
    Thanks for this interesting article. You are so right in saying that conversion scenes in novels used to occur more over a decade ago, but I hadn't really noticed that until you mentioned it. I agree with your reasons for saying that the trend in more modern fiction has it's advantages. Now, I'll the books you've mentioned to my TBR pile, as they sound fascinating.

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    1. Thanks, Paula. Lisa Samson is another terrific author whose novels are really meaty and heart challenging yet wouldn't be thought of as a traditional Christian novel as all. She's brilliant. I have selected many books of her for my book club over the years.

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  9. interesting post. I know a few books I have read that seem very preachy. Some do it well without being preachy. I have heard of readers who will skip over sermons in books. Lori Wick is one author many mention has a lot of preaching in books.
    I have had a couple people say some books in the church library are to preachy and its interesting its Christians who say it where as non Christians just go with it.

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  10. Thanks for those thoughts Rel. One of the best books I read last year was The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, which was published in the mainstream market. I'm not sure if she's a Christian or not, but her treatment of moral dilemmas was done brilliantly and challenged me more than many Christian books I've read. I really found myself grappling with what I thought about the particular issue and what the Godly response would be. If I was going to recommend a faith-inspired book to a non-Christian friend, I would be much more likely to recommend that book than many of the Christian novels I've read that can sometimes have the "cringe" factor, even for a Christian reader. Having said that though, there are a lot of great Christian novels out there. I agree with you that different types of books will touch different people. As writers, it's up to us to be true to what we feel God has called us to do and not worry about how others label our writing. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. Hi Rel - the whole discussion makes me wonder how many Christian authors are out there, writing stories that don't compromise their worldview, yet don't conform to the CBA market either. If this is their occupation, then they need to make a living and will no doubt sell more than if they 'toed the line'. Debbie Macomber comes to mind, a very successful women's fiction author who has sold over 100 million books. An interesting topic!

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